What to do if you survive a plane crash over water.

What to do if you survive a plane crash over water.

What to do if you survive a plane crash over water.

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 2 2009 6:01 PM

You Survived a Plane Crash! Now What?

Don't move.

Bahia Bakari. Click image to expand.
Plane crash survivor Bahia Bakari

Agence France-Presse reported yesterday that Bahia Bakari, a 12-year-old girl from Comoros, is the lone survivor of Tuesday's Yemenia airlines crash. She clung to debris for 10 hours before being rescued. If your plane crashes and you find yourself floating in the ocean, what should you do?

Stay put. The biggest mistake stranded victims make is trying to swim. Body heat naturally creates a warm envelope of water around your person. Assuming you've crashed fully dressed, your clothes will help trap that envelope. But swimming—or panicked flailing—tends to flush out that insulating layer of water. It also needlessly depletes energy stores. Using the body's natural buoyancy is a better strategy. If you have a flotation device of some sort—a seat cushion or buoyant debris—just hang on tight. If not, you should float on your back with arms and legs extended. This technique won't work in rough seas, though, because waves will constantly crash onto your face. In that scenario, it is best to stay vertical with your head submerged, surfacing occasionally to take a breath. (This strategy, called "drown-proofing," should never be attempted in cold water because it significantly increases the risk of hypothermia. In cold, rough seas, treading water is unavoidable.)

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There are only three reasons to swim. First, if you see buoyant debris, go for it. Second, if there are other survivors, you should congregate to share body heat and increase visibility to rescue crews. Third, the crash site can be a very threatening environment. Fire is common in downed airliners, and smoke and fumes can kill a would-be survivor in short order. There is often a massive pool of poisonous jet fuel around the plane as well. Crash survivors should get clear of these dangers by swimming upwind of the crash site and out of the range of any visible fuel. But don't go too far—rescuers will look near the crash site first.

Once clear of the crash site and floating comfortably, the victim can start thinking about rescue. A lone plane crash survivor likely won't have much in the way of signaling devices, but a shiny object might do the trick. If a helicopter or other search craft appears, make a V shape with your index and middle finger and sight the rescuers through it. Using your other hand, catch the light on the shiny object and direct it into the V.

Worried about sharks? You are far more likely to die of hypothermia, drowning, exposure, or dehydration. But if you are an incurable selachophobe, you can minimize your risk by abstaining from bodily discharge (urine, feces, or vomit). If you can't hold it any longer, release it in small doses, letting it dissipate before releasing more.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Garnet A. McLean of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.